www.insidejustice.orgHow Long Is Forty Years? Volume 6, Issue 1 April 2006
What is missing from the debate over House Bill 1315, which would allow for the possibility of parole after 40 years for juvenile murderers, is a discussion of what the appropriate length of a life sentence should be. The assumption seems to be that 40 years is appropriate. This assumption is incorrect and should be thoughtfully re-evaluated.
Before 1977, a life sentence in Colorado was 10-years-to-life. A prisoner would serve 10 calendar years before being eligible for parole. That prisoner would then be under the discretion of the parole board and need never be released. Indeed, there are still prisoners serving such sentences in Colorado prisons.
In 1977, the Colorado General Assembly, led by Representative Anne Gorsuch, determined that a life sentence should doubled to 20 calendar years to parole eligibility. In 1985, the General Assembly, led by Representative Dan Mielke, again doubled life sentences to 40 calendar years. In all three cases, 10-, 20-, and 40-year life sentences, prisoners receive no sentence reductions for earned or good time. Additionally, they need never be released. In 1990, the General Assembly changed life sentences to life without the possibility of parole.
It is no more than mere happenstance that the 40-year sentence evolved. It came about because 10 years was doubled to 20 years, which eight years later was doubled to 40 years. There has never been any discussion as to the appropriate length of a life sentence. The number has nothing to do with anything, not how long the Israelites wandered the Sinai, nor with the length of Jesus's fasts nor any other Biblical or historical basis. The number wasn't even drawn from a hat. It is mere happenstance. Other states have settled upon different length life sentences; New York, for example, has a 25-year-to-life sentence.
Prior to 1994, lifers, upon becoming eligible, would see the parole board every year. In 1994, the General Assembly extended the length of a parole setback to three years. In 2003, setbacks were again extended to five years.
The effect of these changes has been dramatic. As of June 30, 2004, only one class I felon was on parole in Colorado. Out of 6,329 parolees, only one was on parole for a class I felony.1 In contrast, there are 619 prisoners, or 3.2 per cent of all prisoners, serving time for class I felonies.2
Forty years is an extremely long time. No prisoner currently incarcerated in the Colorado Department of Corrections has served so long a stretch. Indeed, the history books list only two prisoners in the history of the state who have survived so long. The name of the longest serving prisoner is lost to history; he served 67 years.3 The next longest serving prisoner was Charles Bulger, who served from 1914 to 1960.4 Of the tens of thousands of men, women and children sentenced to Colorado prisons, it appears that only two have survived for 40 years or more.
Prison is not a healthy place. The diet is poor. Prisons are noisy, dirty, disease-ridden stress factories. Medical and dental care are poor, at best. Citizens who speak of HMO hell have no idea of what they speak. Colorado prisoners endure true HMO hell and have no recourse to seek better care. Hepatitis C and HIV are widespread. The odds are long against any prisoner hoping to survive 40 years in prison.
In 2003, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a George H.W. Bush appointee, told the ABA "that a 20-year-old does not know how long ten or fifteen years is. One day in prison is longer than almost any day you and I have had to endure."5 Forty years is unimaginable to people of any age. To illustrate just how long 40 years is, let us take a stroll down memory lane.
Forty years ago, in 1966, Star Trek premiered on NBC. Charles de Gaulle pulled France from the military command of NATO. Indira Ghandi became prime minister of India. The Soviet Union brought their Luna 9 spacecraft to humanity's first soft landing on another heavenly body. The National Organization for Women formed. Masters and Johnson released Human Sexual Response and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was published. The Beach Boys had a smash hit with Good Vibrations, Simon and Garfunkel released Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, and the Grateful Dead released their first single, Don't Ease Me In. LSD was still legal in California. Engineers used slide rules. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona.
Since 1966, we have had the first Super Bowl and the first heart transplant. The Tet Offensive, the Pueblo Incident, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Lunar landings and Woodstock. Kent State, Doonesbury, the first Earth Day, Monday Night Football, and the break-up of the Beatles. Attica and Archie Bunker. Nixon went to China and the plumbers went to the Watergate Hotel. The OPEC oil embargo, Roe v. Wade, Comet Kohoutek, and Secretariat. Nixon resigned, Patty Hearst was kidnaped, and pocket calculators replaced slide rules. Saturday Night Live reported that Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead, Saigon fell, and the Altair home computer made the cover of Popular Electronics. Mao Zedong died, Apple Computers was born and Frampton came alive. Sadat went to Jerusalem, Elvis went to heaven, the Concorde flew, and Star Wars premiered. Jonestown, Louise Brown, and the Camp David Accords. The Shah fled Iran, students stormed the Tehran Embassy, Three Mile Island melted down, and the Sony Walkman changed work-outs. Reagan was elected and Post-It Notes were invented. Prince Charles wed Lady Diana, IBM introduced the PC, Hinkley shot President Reagan, and NASA launched Columbia. The Falkland Island War and Madonna. The Grenada Invasion and the compact disc. Bhopal, HIV, and The Terminator. "New" Coke and Gorbachev. The Challenger exploded, Chernobyl melted down, Iran-Contra crept by, and Oprah premiered. Black Monday. Salman Rushdie introduced The Satanic Verses and George H.W. Bush introduced Willie Horton. Prozac and fax machines. The Berlin Wall fell, Tiananmen Square rocked, cold fusion fizzled, the Exxon Valdez grounded, and San Francisco shook. Desert Shield and the Hubble Space Telescope. Desert Storm, Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Rodney King, and Halley's Comet. Mogadishu, Hurricane Andrew, and the South-Central riots. NAFTA, the World Trade Center bombing, and Waco. The Channel Tunnel was completed, OJ's low-speed chase riveted, Comet Shoemaker-Levy struck Jupiter, and Northridge shook. Oklahoma City bombing, Million Man March, Windows 95, and the Kobe earthquake. The Atlanta Olympics were bombed, Charles and Diana divorced, and Comet Hyakutake cruised the skies. Princess Diana died, Dolly cloned, Mars Pathfinder landed, and Comet Hale-Bopp triggered the Heavenís Gate mass suicide. Pfizer brought us Viagra and the House impeached President Clinton. The Senate acquitted President Clinton and Columbine and Y2K terrified a nation. The draft of the human genome was completed and hanging chads stalled an election. September 11. The Euro. Columbia disintegrated on reentry, Iraq was liberated, and the West Nile virus came to Colorado. President George W. Bush was re-elected. Pope John Paul II passed away and Pope Benedict XVI was elected. Oil topped $75 per barrel and H5N1 Avian flu spread.
Thatís how long a 40-year sentence is.
Rosten, Kristi. "Fiscal year 2004 Statistical Report." Colorado Department of Corrections, Table 71, p. 88.
Ibid., Table 65. p. 80.
Whitmore, Julie. A History of Colorado State penitentiary 1871-1980. Canon City, Colorado: Printing Plus, 1984, p. 54.
Ibid., p. 72.
Kennedy, Anthony M., Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States. Speech at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting, August 9, 2003. http://www.supremecourtus.gov/publicinfo/speeches/sp_08-09-03.html.
Inside Justiceis a free publication written by G. A. Bowers, Register Number 54374, Fremont Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 999, Canon City, Colorado 81215-0999. Mr. Bowers has been incarcerated since 1985 and is eligible for parole in July, 2145. He is solely responsible for the content of Inside Justice. Correspondence is welcome and may be addressed to the above address or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org . Anybody wishing to be removed from Inside Justice's mailing list may do so by contacting Mr. Bowers at either of the above addresses. Back issues are available at no charge. Back issues are available at www.insidejustice.org . Please feel free to share Inside Justice with any other interested parties.